I’m not sure how to begin this. It’s not easy. It’s not easy because I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of the British. And I’m one of them – born and bred here.
This period in our history will surely be written up in the years to come as one of our un-finest hours. The greatest migration of war-ravaged, deprived and hurt human beings since the Second World War is on our doorstep. Yet for most of us – if the opinion polls are to be believed – our door will remain shut. There is no room at this inn. Apart, that is, from the risible numbers which our Prime Minister has said – in tones of crocodile magnanimity – we will take in over the next five years; and those will all come, not from the desperate and homeless at present struggling, on foot, with their children across Europe, but from those already in organised encampments in Syria. That’s nice. Neat. Less human despair in your face that way.
Most of these refugees, migrants, immigrants whatever you prefer to call them (‘human beings’ is a term seldom employed) land in Greece from utterly inadequate and unseaworthy boats that have carried them (having been robbed of inordinate sums of money by traffickers for the privilege) across the often turbulent ten or so kilometres of sea between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. Those that make it, that is. For hundreds don’t – not while they’re alive at least. We all saw the picture of that small boy lying face downwards on the beach, dead by the lapping waters.
Inside the head of each one of these desperate people is a universe as big and as important as that inside each of our own; the UK Prime Minister’s inner world is no bigger or more important, nor is Barack Obama’s, Madonna’s, Kim Jong-un’s or the Queen of England’s. We are all of us, when the chips are down, just ordinary human beings with the same basic needs – food, shelter, warmth and companionship. It’s what these people have lost and what they are seeking.
Of course all these thousands, old and young, making their way on foot with their families and their paltry possessions across the continent strike fear in the hearts of many in the UK who feel their own lives may be about to be turned upside-down by people from alien cultures. That’s to be expected. But those fears have to be managed. It is beholden upon governments, with the interests of the country at heart, to do so. In the UK however, nothing approaching that has been attempted. Indeed both government and opposition (the latter with some notable exceptions) have played on those fears, seeing in such policy, a means of entrenching their own power and their own chances of remaining in power after the next election. Shocking though it is, our elected leaders appear to have no problem using human misery and pain as bargaining chips. There are words for it – cowardice, immorality, callousness. Such leaders demean profoundly their own high office.
If the will to deal with this situation were there, we’d deal with it. And feel a whole lot better about ourselves in the process. But it’s not. And the UK’s rabid and often vicious right-wing press, taking its cue from the politicians and from the bigoted obsessions of the press barons who own those newspapers, openly drum up as much fear and opposition as they can.
It does not have to be this way. I believe that every single human being is good at heart. With many, that goodness is buried deep, which means the greater effort has to go into releasing it. But it’s there. And if those in power had the moral conviction, the gravitas and the drive one would dearly love to see in such people, that same goodness and willingness to help could be marshalled and used to give these fellow human beings shelter and hope. In so doing, we’d all feel better about ourselves. Years ago, when I travelled widely in some of the of countries from which this human tide is at present flowing, I’d sometimes be asked by a local resident or tradesman who heard me talking, “Are you American?” “No,” I’d reply, with some pride, “I’m British.” Were I asked these days, I couldn’t answer in the same way. I think I’d just say, “No.” And leave it at that.